End of a decade – part 1

Apologies for the long gap without posts.  I’m hoping I might manage to cobble together some mildly interesting thoughts about the years 2000-2009 at some point.  If I do, these will form part two of this post.  But for now what I want to write about is the resurgence in people bleating about the last year of the decade being 2010, and so the new decade not starting until Jan 1st 2011.  The last time these people were making such a nuisance of themselves was when they were seeing it as their mission to spoil millennium eve for everyone.

I realise I’m usually as much (more?) of an insufferable pedant than the next person, and so you might expect me to be amongst the ranks of people who say ‘There was no year zero!  After 365 days Jesus had his first birthday, but a few days later the calendar rolled over to year two.  This is because the moment when Jesus drew his first shuddering breath marked the start of 1AD (the first ‘year of our lord’), not 0AD, which is a logically impossible concept.’  I’m not among these people, and for one very good reason:

It’s all made up.

Obviously, so far as I’m concerned, the whole christ story is made up, but even if you’re a dedicated and passionate believer, the specific details of the dates are definitely made up.  For a start, Jesus wasn’t born in December.  We celebrate it at this time of year because those canny early christians recognised they were never going to overcome the desire to celebrate the winter solstice, and so rather than trying to suppress the festival, they co-opted it.  Almost certainly, Jesus wasn’t born (if he ever was) in year one, either.  Using astronomical (the ‘star’ followed by the wise men) and historical (the census ordered by Caesar Augustus) data, most people speculate about a date some point between 7 and 4 years prior to the year we regard as year one, though they’re always scrupulously careful to hedge their bets.

The real clincher, though, is that, for the first half a millennia or so, no-one was counting.  Most people assume, I think, that the small, dedicated band of Jesus’ followers kept note of when he was born, and that gradually their sense of how long it had been seeped out into the wider consciousness, eventually becoming the key marker in the calendar system.  That’s not what happened.

For hundreds of years, no-one had any sense of, or interest in, when Jesus was born (even now, as I understand it, christians are exhorted to regard his birth as an always-contemporary event, not a historical fact relegated to the past).  Then, abruptly, a monk called Dionysius Exiguus decided that the year in which he was writing was Year 525.  No-one knows why he decided this, but so far as anyone can tell it was entirely arbitrary.  Or, to put it more directly, he made it up.  Next time you find yourself stuck in a conversation with a boring person who insists on telling you that there was no year zero, be sure to respond by telling them that, so far as we can ever know, there was no year 333 (or 327, or 08, or…well, you get the picture) either, and when are they are going to figure that into their calculations?

As the year numbers are based on an entirely random and arbitrary assertion, there’s simply no point in pedantic precision.  In fact, it’s actively misleading, since the spurious precision suggests that the dating system is based on something concrete and absolute when it isn’t.  Equally, since the numbering system is entirely arbitrary, there’s no ‘right time’ to celebrate the end of a decade (or a century, or a millennium).  It’s no more ‘right’ to celebrate it on the 31st December 2010 than it is the 31st December 2009, or, for that matter, the 12th August 2015.  None of those dates has any authentic connection to the supposed birth of Jesus.  Given that, it seems to make perfect sense to select as key points for celebration those occasions at which the passage of time is made more than usually obvious by a significant change in the numbers on the calendar.

This is, of course, what everyone does anyway.  Ten years ago, when the Queen found herself as virtually the only person in the Millennium Dome who got the hand movements to ‘Auld Lang Syne’ right,* she wasn’t marking anything that had a connection to the birth of an ancient subject of the Roman empire, she was marking the point at which there was a significant change in the numbers on the calendar.  When people lift up their glasses and drink to the new decade in a few days time, they’ll be doing exactly the same thing.

* – If any of the development team for MS Word ever happen to read this post (which was initially written on your software), I wonder if you’d be able to answer this question: why does the word in the Scots language ‘auld’ form part of the standard British English dictionary, but not the Scots words ‘lang’, and ‘syne’?  It strikes me that the title of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ must be the most famous phrase in the Scots language, so I’m intrigued by the logic that would include just one of the words and not the others.

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5 Responses to End of a decade – part 1

  1. Katherine says:

    Not even to mention that the New Year was celebrated in March up until about 200 years ago. Also, any holiday we keep by date (e.g. US Independence Day on 4 July) is 14 days early if the thing commemorated happened before the adoption of the reformed calendar (end of the 18th century for most of Europe, not until the mid 19th century in the US) but no one, not even the lunatic fringe Republicans, suggests that we should celebrate Independence day on July 18!

  2. Kapitano says:

    “First things first, but not necessarily in that order.”, as the great Tom Baker once said.

    (1) I thought the most famous scottish phrase was “Och aye tha noo” :-). Though I’ve not met a single scottish person who could tell me what it means.

    (2) The Russian October Revolution happened in November. And it was in what, retroactively, had always been November. But it hadn’t always been November till after October.

    (3) Auld Lang Syne has hand movements? I’ll have to remember that next time I sing it – which will be on a certain council estate in about a week, standing on a little hill banging pots and pans at midnight. It’s become a sort of tradition.

    (4) If I’ve got to have a religion I’ll be a Jedi. Not because I like the films especially – just so I can celebrate Sithmas.

    So, merry sithmas to you.

  3. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Katherine – i’ll be honest, i didn’t know about the change in when the new year was celebrated, or the new calendar. The only calendar change i was aware of was the Julian to Gregorian in…er…whenever that was. But all grist to the mill regarding the futility of getting pedantic about then things like ends of decades are celebrated, so thank you. :o)

    Kapitano – I thought the most famous scottish phrase was “Och aye tha noo” :-)

    I guess it depends how much of a Russ Abbot fan you are… ;o) (At least, i think that was RA – it was certainly him that did “See, you, Jimmy!”)

    Though I’ve not met a single scottish person who could tell me what it means.

    Well, i’m not Scotish, but i have lived part of my life in Scotland, and so far as i know: “Och aye” is “Oh yes”, and “the noo” is a way of refering to the immediate future – the closest English equivalent would be “right now”. So that would make the whole phrase “Oh yes, right now”. Which doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense. I can imagine circumstances in which someone might say it – in an answer to a question about if they were going to do something soon, perhaps – but it does seem a little odd for a famous phrase.

    Auld Lang Syne has hand movements?

    Well, oficially, you’re supposed to hold hands with the people each side of you in the normal way, and lift them gently up and down in time to the beat. Then, on the last chorus, you disconnect hands, and cross your arms in front of you before re-grabbing hands, so that you’re now using your left hand to hold onto the person on your right, and vice versa. Most people who do the movements, though, cross their arms right from the start. But, clearly, it doesn’t actually matter. It’s only stupidly pedantic people like me who even notice… ;o)

    If I’ve got to have a religion I’ll be a Jedi.

    Well, i’m sorry to say i was one of those people who put down ‘Jedi’ as my religion on the 2001 census. Not because i actually believe in it as a religion, i hasten to add, nor because i’m a big fan of the films, but just because it seemed like a slightly witty way of registering a protest at having such a spectacularly irrelevant question on the form. In retrospect, it was quite a lot less witty than i thought it was…

    But, in any case, i guess that makes me officially qualified to wish a merry Sithmas to you also. :o)

  4. Tom Degan says:

    I can remember where I was ten years ago when this awful decade came into being. Believe it or not, when I rang in the new year on January 1, 2000, I was not only stone-cold sober – I was at church! My then-girlfriend and I attended a special midnight mass at the local Catholic church to welcome in, not only a new decade, but a new century and a new millennium. I remember feeling filled with optimism. By entering this new era, I felt, we could wipe the slate clean. Maybe this would be a new age of peace, love, brother and sisterhood. EVERYBODY SING!

    This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius!
    Age of Aquarius!

    How utterly naive on my part, huh? By year’s end, all of that hope was out the window and into the toilet. In a little less than a year, an ideologically perverted Supreme Court would assist in a stolen election by stopping the vote count in the state of Florida, installing a corrupt little frat boy with the I.Q. of a half-eaten box of Milk Duds as president of the United States. It was all downhill from that moment on. From the birth of “Reality Television” to the worst attack on American soil since the Civil War, it was quite a strange ten years to say the least. Thankfully this awful decade is a mere three days away from being consigned forever to history’s scrap heap. Hallelujah.


    Tom Degan

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